Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong is trying to douse political controversy over Australia’s offer to fund elections in Solomon Islands after its Prime Minister accused the federal government of foreign interference.
Manasseh Sogavare issued a biting statement lateon Tuesday saying Australia’s offer to fund elections next year was designed to convince Solomon Islands MPs not to vote for a controversial bill to push the national poll back until 2024, calling it an “assault” on the country’s democracy.
Opposition MPs in Solomon Islands have backed Australia’s offer and say Sogavare’s furious response exposes the fact that his real aim is to hold onto power.
But the Coalition has accused the government of bungling its handling of the matter and grilled the Foreign Minister on the subject in Senate Question Time.
Senator Wong did not mention Sogavare directly but denied the allegation of foreign interference.
“Support for an election which is held when the Solomon Islands parliament and government determined that election can be, is an offer respectful of the sovereignty of Solomon Islands,” she told the Senate.
She also stressed that the government’s financial assistance was not contingent on the election being held on schedule next year.
Sogavare maintains he needs to delay the election until after the Pacific Games in late 2023 because his country does not have the financial resources to hold two major events in the same year.
The Solomons opposition scoffs at that explanation and accuses the Prime Minister of trying to erode democratic norms.
Senator Wong said Australia’s offer to help would stand even if the poll was pushed back.
“Australia has always taken the view that democracy, democratic processes and democracy matters. I would reiterate the standing offer the Australian government has to support Solomon Islands’ next election, whether held in 2023 or 2024,” she said.
“Obviously, as I’ve made clear publicly, the timing of the election is entirely a matter for the government and the parliament of Solomon Islands,” she said.
The Solomon Islands parliament is due to formally debate the constitutional amendment to delay elections when it sits on Thursday.
Sogavare’s government has control of the chamber and most observers expect the parliament to pass it rapidly.
The often mercurial Prime Minister Sogavare said Australia’s decision to tell the media about the funding offer in the middle of the Solomon’s parliamentary debate proved it was intent on shaping the outcome.
But Senator Wong suggested the government only made the information public because it fielded questions from journalists.
“This government does seek to transparently answer questions which are made by journalists,” she told the senate.
“We did so in relation to an offer which is consistent with the practice of past and this government to support democracy.”
The foreign minister did not confirm that the government first made the formal offer to Solomon Islands only last week, saying only that the offer had been “reiterated on more than one occasion, including by Minister Conroy as well as by officials”.
And the opposition is maintaining its attack on the government over the issue, with Senator Birmingham accusing the Foreign Minister of “ducking and weaving important questions”.
“It appears the Albanese government has blundered this offer and made a difficult situation worse through its poor public handling of the matter,” he said in a statement.
“Given the many pre-election statements by Labor, it is now remarkable that they are refusing to be transparent in the circumstances leading to an outcome that has resulted in a Pacific region partner issuing an extraordinary rebuke to the Albanese government,” said Senator Birmingham.
SOURCE: ABC PACIFIC/PACNEWS